In our continuing series, “Atheists Caught Being Good,” here is another chapter about a local group of atheists joining in with their community to make things better for everyone.
For the last 20 years, the City of Santa Clarita, California has held an annual “River Rally,” where hundreds of people converge to clean up a section of the Santa Clara River, southern California’s last river still in its natural state. Running right through the center of town, it is home to many plants and animals including 14 endangered bird species and 6 endangered plant species, and it is an important wildlife corridor. It’s also a source of about half of the city’s precious little water. All rivers in this area are mostly dry during the summer, so it’s a good time to clean out the trash and debris that can harm wildlife and pollute the water.
It is my pleasure to be a part of this group of about 30 active members, and six of us worked that morning as a team. In our distinctive t-shirts, we attracted the curiosity of people who asked us about who we are and what we’re about. Before and after the time working in the riverbed, we had cordial conversations with several people, including meeting City Mayor Laurene Weste, who can be seen in the center of our group photo. At the very least, she now knows that we exist and we’re participating in the well-being of the community.
Waiting for things to start, I met a very sweet and very young woman who, with two others, is on a missionary assignment here for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was clearly curious about us, but she asked her questions hesitantly. So I turned on all my easy-to-talk-to-counselor charm, and we had a pleasant and constructive chat. She asked what we do as a group, and I explained that because society is generally very hostile to atheists, many are closeted and isolated, not knowing anyone else who thinks the way they do. The Internet has helped us find each other, and so groups like ours can form at first to give each other mutual support and like-minded companionship. I said that such groups often gradually grow beyond that first purpose, and they begin to want to use their group cohesion as a positive force in the community. Our being at the River Rally is an example.
She was intrigued, but, still with caution, she haltingly asked if we “oppose religious belief.” I replied that I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant by “oppose,” but that most atheists simply lack belief in gods because we need more than arguments or testimonials to be convinced of such things. We need evidence. Thinking that by “oppose” she might have meant wanting to prohibit belief by others, I added that many atheists are very passionate about protecting religious freedom for everyone, that we must all be free or none of us will be free. By the look on her face, that seemed to have demolished some important misconception she had had.
I shared a little about being a counselor and writing the advice column, describing how I have spoken as a guest atheist at church meetings not to try to change people’s beliefs about their god, but to change their beliefs about atheists. Those misconceptions do terrible and unnecessary damage to families when a young person stops believing, and I would like to prevent that if I can.
I amended my remarks by saying that not all atheists are like me in every way, that we can have very different views on just about any issue, using the joke about “herding cats.” Nevertheless, I think she came away with a more positive and accurate impression and a willingness to see us as generally good, decent people. The announcement was made to start heading into the riverbed, and so we said our goodbyes and mixed into the crowd.
More often than you might think, prejudice and fearful mistrust can be prevented or turned around one person at a time with just a brief, relaxed, and good-natured chat. Patience, diligence, patience, diligence, repeat.